On June 24, the Liberian government arrested an outspoken young journalist named Hassan Bility and charged him with plotting to kill President Charles Taylor. Human rights and press watchdogs say the arrest is a sham, and a worrying sign of the increasingly repressive nature of the Liberian government. They are voicing concern that Mr. Bility, who edited a major opposition newspaper, The Analyst, may have been tortured to death.
Liberian Minister of Information Reginald Goodridge says Bility is alive and cooperating with the investigation. But no one else has seen or heard from the journalist for two weeks, and the government failed Friday, for the fourth time, to honor a court order to produce the detainee in court.
"Given the record of the Liberian government with regard to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of human rights defenders in detention and repeated attacks on Hassan Bility in the past," said Amnesty International in a statement, "we are seriously concerned that [he may] ... have been severely tortured or killed."
Bility's plight is not an isolated incident, in Liberia, or in Africa. In the past month alone, Niger journalist Abdoulaye Tiemogo was arrested and faces a possible two-year prison term on charges of defaming Prime Minister Hama Amadou; officials in Togo jailed journalist Basile Agboh after they accused him of defaming the son of Togo's President Gnassingbé Eyadéma; and four journalists in Zambia were imprisoned without bail for reporting that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has Parkinson's disease.
Freedom has never been a word associated with Liberia, a repressive, poor, war-torn country, ironically named, years ago, for the liberty it promised. But today, in the throes of a new civil war, Liberia has become even less tolerant of dissent. In February, President Taylor declared a state of emergency sanctioning summary arrests of anyone suspected of acting or speaking against the interests of the state.
Topics such as the Army, the civil war, diamond mining, and corruption are all taboo for local journalists, while several foreign journalists have been denied entry to the country or harassed while there. Half a dozen opposition journalists have been arrested in the past six months and three newspapers have been closed.
Going through Bility's private e-mail account last month, the government claims it found "incriminating letters" from figures such as Damate Konneh, leader of the rebel group LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), and opposition leader in exile Alhaji Kromah in which a murder plot was outlined.
Copies of these e-mails, given to the Monitor by the Liberian government, are filled with both code phrases such as "meet at the usual place and bring what is needed," and straightforward language such as "Taylor will soon be dead." The e-mails also implicate, by name, several other Monrovians, including a driver at the American Embassy.
Bility's friends and colleagues say they are not familiar with the e-mail address to which all the letters were sent, and some say the e-mails are not authentic.
But on this evidence Bility and three others were accused of being "unlawful combatants," and arrested.
Robert Ménard, secretary-general of the international press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders, finds it hard to believe the charges, and worries the arrests are another example of the "witch hunt against journalists who criticize government policies." Several other diplomats in West Africa familiar with Bility and the story echo this sentiment and point out that, on top of his outspokenness, Bility is also a member of the predominantly Muslim Mandingo tribe, to which many of the LURD rebels belong. "This looks like persecution," said one diplomat, who, like the others, spoke on a condition of anonymity.
"Liberia is a whipping boy for the media," says information minister Goodridge. "But in fact Liberia is exemplary when it comes to freedom of the press." The Minister, who has been on friendly terms with Bility for years, says he was "shocked" by the charges, but adds that Bility "has admitted journalism was a cover for his vile activities."
Meanwhile, a LURD statement sent to the United Nations headquarters in Monrovia last week said Bility was in no way associated with the rebel movement. LURD spokesman William Hanson told Reuters the journalist was "not even a LURD sympathizer in fact he's been quite critical of both us and the government."
Several close associates and friends of Bility contacted by phone in Monrovia, who whispered into the receiver for fear of being overheard, have also vouched for his innocence. "He might well have been in touch with dissidents. He is a journalist and that's his job," says one colleague. "He was not working with them."
The last time The Analyst was ordered to stop publication was in April, after Bility reprinted a speech the government deemed "anti-Liberian."
During that time, Bility said he received a death threat from a colonel in the Liberian National Police who told him that those writing against "our Papay" a reference to President Taylor would be "dealt with." The colonel reportedly said that "... your writings and opinions are influencing the international community to expose the Papay."